I don't usually think of myself as a "person with anxiety disorder," which is funny, since a pretty solid chunk of my day is governed by the fact that I am a person with anxiety disorder. Anxiety can turn something as simple as my morning commute into a psychological game show, where I'm constantly trying to figure out the correct answer before the timer runs out. Do I stuff myself onto this extremely crowded train and potentially freak out, or do I wait for the next one and risk being late to work? Do I stress out about making small talk with my barista, or do I walk 10 minutes out of my way to a new coffee shop where nobody knows me? Oops, you chose wrong, and now you're having a panic attack! But thank you for playing "Generalized Anxiety Disorder"! If you also deal with anxiety, you may be nodding your head to all that; but if you don't, you may just be scratching it. Because it is exceedingly tough to explain anxiety to someone who hasn't dealt with it.
Those of us with anxiety issues are lucky to live in an era of increased awareness — in previous decades, anxiety was often dismissed as "shyness" or treated as a personality flaw that you could be talked out of. But even though many people now understand that anxiety is a real mental health disorder, they may still struggle to understand what anxiety feels like, or why it makes certain aspects of life more complicated. So below, I've shared three ways that I personally have explained my anxiety to others. I'm not a therapist; these are just some tactics that have worked for me. But maybe they will inspire you to find new ways to explain to your own experience with anxiety to your loved ones.
1. Compare It To An Experience They're Familiar With
A lot of people who've never experienced anxiety imagine that it must be similar to what they felt before they gave a big presentation at work, or asked someone they really liked out on a date. And it might be a little like that, at times — but I feel like anxiety that you feel because you took a risk that might pay off later is different from the anxiety I experience on the regular. So I find that it's helpful to explain anxiety in terms of a different kind of nerve-wracking experience that they may be familiar with.
To me, anxiety feels like being in a big, creepy house alone at night (you can also substitute "driving alone on a deserted highway" or "lost in a city where you don't speak the language" if you love creepy houses at night). You hear a noise that wouldn't cause any real reaction if you heard it during the day at work — but hearing it alone in this big scary house makes your heart race and your body prepare for fight-or-flight. You become extra sensitive to everything else around you — sights, smells, whatever — because your body is trying to figure out if you're threatened. I've found that explaining it in this way helps me better convey the emotionally-charged nature of my anxiety — and its trajectory, which is less "rise to a peak and then experience relief at the end" and more "get freaked out over and over again by the weird creaking noises until you eventually fall asleep."
2. Explain How It Impacts The Small Things You Do Each Day
People who don't grapple with anxiety can have a hard time understanding how it complicates the small things you have to do every day, so I find that walking them through a specific situation that gives me anxiety, step by step, can be illuminating.
For me, email is an issue. A lot of my anxieties focus on social interactions, be they in person or online, with strangers or people I know well. And all these anxieties come to a head when I have to write a group email to, say, a group of coworkers whom I don't know too well.
First, I write out the email, spellcheck it, all the normal stuff. Then I go through to make sure I didn't use any words that I don't totally know the meaning of, just in case I used them incorrectly, which I'm afraid would make my coworkers think I'm stupid. Then I go through again, word by word, and take out anything I could imagine anyone possibly misconstruing and getting offended by. Then I try to think of whether any of the ideas I brought up in the email could possibly be interpreted as stepping on anyone else's toes, and I take those out, too. Then I go through again and try to find anything in the email that could be annoying that I somehow missed the first time. Then I walk away from my computer for 15 minutes and imagine all my coworkers getting the email, and becoming offended or annoyed with me anyway. Eventually, I send the email.
I've found that this kind of blow-by-blow explanation can be more effective than a hundred metaphors, as it actually helps the person you're talking to see how anxiety shapes your decisions and thought processes
3. Let Them Know That You Don't Always Know What Will Make You Anxious
Even the most sensitive friends and family members may sometimes get confused or frustrated with the seemingly random nature of anxiety. They assume that there's a more direct cause-and-effect action at work; Action A causes you to feel Emotion B. That's why I find that it can be helpful to be open and frank about the fact that my anxiety is kind of unpredictable.
My boyfriend, for example, is an absolute champion at helping me cope (and coping himself) with my anxiety. He soothes, he unconditionally supports, he does that thing where you tell someone to visualize their body being enveloped in a calming white light. He is the MVP of my GAD. But even he is sometimes perplexed by it. For example, most Sunday nights, I get panicky. If I don't go on an exhausting jog during the day and then write in my diary (and sometimes even if I do those things), I am in for a long night of insomnia. Insomnia is one of the main ways my anxiety manifests itself — I wake up after an hour or so of sleep with my heart pounding, and find that my brain wide awake and full of every spare worry floating around my head.
Once, when my boyfriend happened to be up during one of these insomniac episodes, he started asking me what I was worried about. "Nothing," I told him, and I was telling him the truth — sometimes these insomnia episodes were tied to actual worries about my job or friends, but sometimes they weren't. Sometimes they seemed to appear in the grooves worn by old worries — I had developed the Sunday night insomnia habit at my old job, where every Monday was a fresh hell, but changing careers hadn't helped me shake it.
And sometimes, I had a night of insomnia for no discernable reason — the same way that some days, I can chat with whoever, and others I can barely deal with the thought of having to make small talk with our neighbors in our apartment's vestibule. My anxiety isn't rational — it's not just an amplified expression of what I'm worried about. It's a misfiring of my brain's fight-or-flight mechanisms, and while I can deploy a ton of coping methods when it flares up, I'm not in charge of what sets it off. I can't always see it coming — I often don't know I'm having a bad anxiety episode until I'm already deeply freaking out.
And even the people who love us the most, and are around us day after day, may not realize this on their own. They may be looking for patterns in what sets us off — which can be helpful. But they may not understand that there isn't always a rhyme or reason to having a panic attack or an episode of extreme anxiety. Sometimes it just happens.
These are just my own experiences with my own anxiety, of course. Yours may be (and probably are) completely different. But if you've been having trouble explaining your own anxiety experiences and symptoms to others, maybe some of these descriptions can give you a jumping off point. The people who care us want to understand, even if they don't necessarily get it right away. But don't give up. They'll get there, eventually.
Images: Volkan Olmez/ Unsplash; Giphy (3)